The Gray Catbird

The Gray Catbird is one species that I have become acquainted with since I started feeding the birds. They are fairly common, and now that I know what I am looking for, I seem to see them everywhere. But I honestly never noticed them before, which is really a shame. While they may not be colorful songbirds, they are beautiful in their own, subtle way.

According to most field guides, Catbirds are more often heard than seen. While that might be the case if you are walking on an unfamiliar path, in general, I find that if you hear a Gray Catbird call and stop to look for it, you will see it. They aren’t particularly shy birds. They also aren’t small birds that are able to easily hide, unless the vegetation is very thick. I find that they tend to exhibit the bold personality of most birds their size (at nine inches they are about the same size as an American Robin or Kingbird).

So don’t be discouraged by what the field guides say. If you want to see a Gray Catbird, just keep looking for one. Of course you will need to know what you are looking for. All Catbirds look similar, even the juveniles quickly develop to look like their parents. As its name implies, the Gray Catbird is primarily gray, a very pretty slate gray. The Catbird does have other colors in distinct areas, including a black hood or cap on its head. Its beak and legs are also black, as are its penetrating, large black eyes. If you are lucky you will also spot a flash of rusty red that can be seen under the Catbird’s tail and on its butt. You many have more chances to see this patch of rust than you would think, as the Catbird often uses its tail as a rudder for balance. As a result, you will often see a Catbird carefully perched, with its tail pointed toward the sky. This rusty section under its tail also plays a part in attracting a mate, with males showing their rusty bottoms to potential mates at the end of a several part mating ritual.

But even beyond looks, it is the sound of the Gray Catbird that lets you know of its presence. The origin of their common name gives you a big hint. The Catbird is known for the meowing sound it sometimes makes. Don’t believe me? Check out this link, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gray_Catbird/sounds. Of course the meow isn’t the only call a Catbird can make. They do sing in other tones and were known by the Chippewa Indians as Bird That Cries With Grief because of the mournful cry they make. The Gray Catbird has also been known to mimic other birds. Unlike the Northern Mockingbird or other species that copy sounds, the Catbird does not repeat a song or sound more than once.

Keep an eye out for Catbirds in shrubs. They do like the cover of dense forests, but that can include spaces in parks or even wooded backyards. They like to eat both insects and fruit/berries so you can often see and hear them foraging in leaf piles. That being said, they do come to feeders. I have seen them at seed, suet and jelly feeders, and they aren’t shy of their fellow diners in the least. According to the field guides, the babies are fed exclusively on insects alone. However, I have witnessed Catbirds taking mouthfuls of suet off to nesting young, so you have a lot of food options to attract them to your space.

Gray Catbirds are not a year round resident of New Jersey, with the exception of the shore and southern counties. They usually depart for warmer living by late September, returning to meow at us again by late April. So fill your feeders and keep your eyes peeled, your ears ready and maybe you will spot a Gray Catbird yourself!

Tree Swallows

In this blog I often focus on those birds we are likely to see at our backyard feeders, but today I would like to talk about the Tree Swallow. Though by no means uncommon throughout the state of New Jersey, it is unlikely that Tree Swallows will come to your feeders or nest in boxes in dense populated, suburban areas. You might have better luck if you live in a more rural area, especially if you live near a source of still water, such as a small pond or marsh. We usually see Tree Swallows when we visit our favorite marshes in the Meadowlands or the Celery Farms.

Migrating up from Mexico starting in mid-March, the majority of the population has usually arrived by mid-April. You really cannot mistake them for another bird. Their most distinguishing feature, especially from other Swallows, is their vibrant plumage. Their upper feathers are a shiny blue that can seem opalescent in direct sunlight. Their downy white bellies provide a stark contrast to the blue. The female is often duller than her male counterpart, while the juvenile is a gray-brown with a gray breast band around its white belly.

They are about the same size as most songbirds, growing to be between five and six inches. Besides their plumage, you can also recognize them by their pointed wings and notched or forked tails. They have black feet, a small black beak and large black eyes, which almost appear too large for their heads.

You will also know them by their overactive behavior. While Swallows do perch more often than a Hummingbird, they are still a very energetic and active bird, usually swooping and flying in a show of constant activity. There movements are usually accompanied by a series of chirps and chatters directed toward their fellow Tree Swallows. While they do settle on branches or the tops of bird boxes, you will most often see them flying back and forth across open fields or water. They spend most of their time hunting for insects, which make up their entire diet.

Tree Swallows nest in cavities and have really adapted well to bird-boxes, such as bluebird houses. Other man-made cavities they can nest in include PVC pipe houses, sometimes found in marshes. In nature they look for tree cavities and often use abandoned Woodpecker holes. Once they have found their home, Tree Swallows like to line their nests with dropped feathers and they have been known to travel long distances to collect features to pad their nest with.

Common Grackles

The Grackle is one of the most beautiful birds you will ever welcome into your yard. The feature that really makes them stunning to watch is their opalescence, a colorful sheen that reflects off of their feathers.

A large black bird, the Common Grackle can be up to 13 inches, making it one of the largest birds to visit your feeder. In keeping with its plumage, the Common Grackle has a black bill, as well as black legs. Its head is actually blue-black and rest of the body is more of a plum-black or bronzed. One of my bird books indicated that bronzed-backed and purple-backed birds are two different subspecies of Common Grackle. No other books make reference to this. I believe that bronzed is the most likely type to be found in New Jersey. The female resembles the male, being only slightly duller in color and slightly smaller in size.

In overall appearance I think that Common Grackles are actually very dinosaur-like. I think it has something to do with their eyes and the slope of their neck to their feet. They remind me of a Velociraptor. Very predatory. Their eyes are another startling feature. Unlike their feathers, their large yellow eyes are unnerving rather than beautiful. Apparently they are not born with yellow eyes. Young Common Grackles start out with brown eyes which grow more yellow as they age.

They have a varied diet that includes insects, seeds, invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, fish, small vertebrates, fruit, grain and nuts. They will gratefully partake at the seed or suet feeder. They also have strong muscles that help them to open their mouths with focus, a tool which they employ to pry open spaces and get at insects and other small prey.

The Common Grackle is present in New Jersey year-round, but is much more common in the summer than the winter. In the winter they are more likely to be found near farmland where they have an easier time finding food. Grackles often flock in large groups that can include up to 75 pairs. Their winter or migration flocks, which often include other species such as starlings and blackbirds, have been known to number in the tens of thousands.

The American Robin

Robins are a very controversial bird in my household. My husband is from the United Kingdom and to him a Robin is a very different bird. The Robin Red Breast of Europe is a much smaller bird than the American Robin, measuring about the same size as a Chickadee. They are tiny and cute and they are the United Kingdom’s unofficial Christmas card bird, much like Cardinals are on many holiday cards in the United States. For more information and images of a European Robin, you can visit: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/robin/

Since we live in America, we will ignore my husband’s protests that this huge, gawky bird ISN’T a “real” Robin, and now focus on the American Robin in all its glory. As Apollo is the bringer of the sun, the Robin is given credit for being the bringer of Spring each year. When you start to see Robins, winter is nearly over. This is particularly funny as in most of the United States at least some of the Robin population doesn’t migrate. Others, particular those living in Canada, do migrate South toward Central America.

The American Robin is actually in the Thrush family. He stands much taller than his European doppelganger, between nine and eleven inches. Robins are commonly seen in parks, forests and backyards, although they are not seed eaters so they will not be attracted to most feeders. Their diet is mostly worms and other invertebrates with some berries or fruit. One of their many well-known poses is to stand still and cock their heads. This cocking of the head is usually attributed to listening for worm vibrations. Actually their eyes are set too far back in their heads and they must turn their heads at a cocked angle to see. They don’t listen for their prey at all.

Some people might disagree, but you can tell the males and females apart. Both have the tell-tale red/orange chest but the male’s chest is much fuller and more vibrant. The male has a gray back and dark gray/black cap on his head. Look for the white around his eye and the streaks of white on his neck. The female is a bit duller all around and her head is lighter gray. Besides their childish behavior, the juveniles are easily distinguished by their speckled chest, usually framed by some orangy feathers around the edge.

Robins usually have two broods, of three to five eggs. These eggs are almost as familiar to us as the Robin itself, a light blue egg sometimes with brown speckles. They are in fact the origin of the color “Robin’s Egg Blue.” Perhaps they and their color are so familiar to us because their hatched remnants can often be found in yards and on porches. In nature Robins typically build their mud and grass lined nests in trees or shrubs. However, they also like porch or roof beams, and exposed foundations, making them a common, if uninvited tenant of human dwellings. This can at times prove difficult as they are very territorial. When protecting their nest they know no fear and have been known to swoop down out of their nests with a single warning cry, not unlike a plane appearing out of the clouds in a WWII movie. My parents had a Robin settle in their porch one summer. After the eggs were laid she (females usually incubate while the males feed the first set of hatchlings) was very touchy. My father is a really early riser, and likes to have his coffee on the porch in the fresh air. That summer, forever marked as the summer of the Robin in my mind, was a summer of early mornings for all of us, as the Robin dive-bombed at my father almost every morning, usually resulting in spilled coffee and a string of obscenities piercing the pure morning stillness. I will give him credit. He let her hatch and raiser her babies before he removed the nest. But you can be sure, no nest of any kind has been allowed in that particular corner since. Any sign of nesting activity and up the ladder he goes.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorite birds to spot in the wild. While they are considered common in New Jersey, their movements are considered “erratic.” This is due to their nomadic search for a specific type of food, berries. Because of this wandering existence, it is difficult to predict the Cedar Waxwings’ movements or to find them in the same place more than once. They do summer in Northern New Jersey and can be found in the southern half of the state year-round. They are present in much of the Northern United States year-round.

According to my field guides, late autumn into the winter months is the best time to spot them. The lack of leaves makes a visual easier to accomplish. In the winter they will flock, sometimes as many as 100 together, making it even easier to spot them. That being said, they like to perch on the tops of tall trees, making a close-up view tricky.

While some might claim that the Cedar Waxwings lack conventional beauty, I wouldn’t call them ugly. Distinguished or noble might be the best characteristics to use when describing them. They measure in at about 7 ½ inches, as compared to their larger relation the Bohemian Waxwing who measures 8 ¼ inches. Both the females and males look alike. They are mostly brown-gray in color, with hints of yellow, flashes of white and a black mask on their faces. They have a crest on their head, giving them a silhouette not dissimilar to a Northern Cardinal. But it is the tips of their tails and wings that make them really special. The tips of their tails are a shiny yellow, and the tips of their wings have a similarly shiny red. Earlier observers believed that the tips on their wings looked as if they had been dipped in wax, leading to their common name Waxwing. These waxy wing tips only appear after a few years and some believe they may be used to signal the bird’s age to its fellows.

Cedar Waxwings live in wooded spaces. They usually nest a bit later than most birds, in July and August (at least in New Jersey). They usually have only one brood a year, which consists of 4-6 eggs that are pale blue with markings. The female incubates the eggs, but both the male and female feed their young together.

One key to understanding the Cedar Waxwing is grasping just how dedicated they are to the pursuit of berries. While they do eat insects, and will eat primarily bugs during the spring, Waxwings are really all about the fruit and sweet berries. They begin feeding their young berries after only a few days. One of the ways they display to their mates is by feeding each other berries. Their unswayed berry fixation has given them a reputation for gluttony among bird watchers.

The Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse is an amusing little guy. His name even means little, “Tit” being Scandinavian for “little.”A frequent backyard visitor, the Tufted Titmouse is a bit bigger than a Chickadee, at about six inches. They are bluish or slate gray in color with a white belly and rusty red-brown feathers under the wings and tail. Their dark eyes and black beak are accentuated by their light colored bodies. The “Tufted” part of their name probably refers to the pointed crest at the top of their head. Both the males and the females look alike.

Historically more common in Southern New Jersey, today they are common year-round throughout the state. They like dry, open woodland and are commonly found in urban parks and suburban yards. They nest in cavities, such as abandoned woodpecker holes. Titmice will also settle in nest boxes. Once they have found a cavity to their liking, they will line it with moss, bark, leaves, grass and, apparently, the fur of animals such as cats and dogs, which they have been known to take right off of the living mammal while it sleeps.

Tufted Titmice are very common feeder birds (both seed and suet), although they will eat insects and arachnids, including spiders and their eggs. They also eat a variety of fruit and seeds. In the winter they can subsist on acorns if necessary. When visiting a feeder you often only see one at a time. Sometimes when they are feeding young, a pair will visit the feeder vicinity together. One mate will retrieve seed while the other perches a safe distance away, keeping lookout. They then switch positions before flying off the feed their young.

Tufted Titmice are not only monogamous, but they have long-term pair bonding. They have two broods a year, usually of five to seven white eggs with brown spots. The female incubates the eggs alone, but both parents feed the young. They will form non-species flocks with other small birds, including Chickadees, outside of the breeding season.

There are a few other species of Titmice in North America, including the plain Titmouse and the Bridled Titmouse, both of which are not even mentioned in my Eastern North America book.

A Very, Very Damp Bald Eagle

Up on Lake Ontario this past August the whole campground was buzzing with the news. There was a Bald Eagle in the area! Several of the fishermen had spotted it, or claimed they had spotted it (you never can be too sure when it come to fishermen and their fish stories). My parents had even claimed to see it flying by on a number of occasions. They had spotted it from the porch. The first conversation actually went something like this:

“What’s new?”

“Your father and I saw a Bald Eagle today!”

“That is cool, where?”

“On the porch.”

“There was a Bald Eagle sitting on the porch!”

“No! It was over the lake, why would it want to sit on our porch?”

As the saying goes, ask a silly question. But regardless of exactly where my mother was positioned when she spotted it, she had seen a Bald Eagle and as a non-fishing individual her word could be trusted to the fullest.

Labor Day weekend came around and I had my camera at the ready, but Bald Eagle could not be seen. Sunday was actually a pretty miserable day, rain coming down in buckets most of the day, making visibility difficult, let alone flying. Not many birds of any kind had ventured out. Sometime after lunch, sitting on the edge of the porch with my feet up and starting to be lulled to sleep by the steady sound of rain on the roof, I noticed a large fluttering movement. Seemingly out of nowhere, an enormous bird settled down on the top of the telephone pole crossbar.

Quick confirmation with the long lens indicated it was one very wet and miserable looking Bald Eagle. It must have been pretty tired to decide to rest on that spot, totally exposed to the elements which were still on full blast. It moved around and adjusted, but the Eagle must have perched on that pole for about twenty minutes before it finally spread its wings and launched back into flight.

When I got home and examined the photos on my computer, two things became apparent. 1. This Eagle was really very wet. Poor thing. You almost looked like you could have wrung out its feathers. 2. Its coloring is a bit off. The head was white with some brown splotches. The beak was yellowish where it met the Eagle’s face. The underbelly of the bird also had a lot of white feathers showing. So what was wrong with the Bald Eagle?

The answer is nothing. Bald Eagles take several molts, effectively several years, before they acquire their adult appearance that we recognize so clearly. After they develop from the juvenile stage, Bald Eagles have a “subadult” phase. In both the juvenile and subadult stages Bald Eagles can be mistaken for their brown cousins, Golden Eagles.

As you can see from the pictures of my very damp friend, I think it was only a molt or maybe two away from the full adult plumage, with only some spotting of white on its wings and only white feathers starting to become apparent on its head.

The Pigeons of New York

I made reference in my post about Mourning Doves that my family has a strong affinity for pigeons. I know that this is an attachment that is not shared by most of my fellow humans, especially not most of the urbanites among you. In that same post I complained that I didn’t often have the opportunity to photograph pigeons in my own neighborhood. Over the summer I decided to rectify that situation with a trip to the best pigeon watching ground in my area, New York’s Central Park.

One of the great things about urban pigeon populations is the variety of colors and plumage styles. Most cities, including New York, have pigeon racing clubs. The pedigree pigeons sometimes do more than just fly home when they are released for a race. The evidence of their romantic dalliances can be seen in the more exotic white and brown plumage one sees mixed among the gray native populations of Rock Pigeons.

Love was definitely in the air on this particular summer day as I was able to observe at least two males attempt to incite a lady pigeon, really any lady pigeon. One was a darker blue-gray, while the second male had more of the traditional light gray Rock Pigeon coloring. Their flirtatious behavior can at quick glance be confused with their normal head bobbing walk. However, courtship is accompanied with the male spreading his tail feathers, puffing up his chest and walking mostly in circles around or at the female. Sometimes those circles are rather tight, giving the impression that the male pigeon is engaged in a game of hokey-pokey, and keeps turning himself around.

Both of the males I observed were in hot pursuit of ladies who seemed distinctly uninterested. The males didn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of interest or consent, probably confident that their charms would win out in the end. At times their actions were akin to those of a pantomime villain, lurking just behind the female waiting for the opportunity to pounce!

The Bald Eagle

The first Bald Eagle I saw in the wild was actually in Washington D.C. It was my husband’s first visit to the nation’s capital and we had decided to visit in January, when the Mall is both empty and cold. At the Jefferson Memorial my husband looked up and said, “Look, a Bald Eagle!” We had been joking all day about seeing the Vice President in a car window or Uncle Sam in a doorway, so I figured this was just another good natured joke about America and her patriotic symbols. But it was in fact a Bald Eagle. We didn’t have as long a lens as we have these days, so the photos do little more than prove him right. The white head and brown back is clearly visible against the clear blue sky.

I was recently discussing with a friend the increasing number of Bald Eagle sightings we are aware of in the past few years. We are both in our thirties, and I genuinely feel that there are more Bald Eagles around than there were when we were growing up. According to The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution by William J. Boyle Jr. (2011), our instincts are correct, there is a growing number of Bald Eagles, in New Jersey. DDT, persecution and habitat destruction all combine to decrease the Bald Eagle population to the Endangered level in forty-eight states. In 1970 there was only one nest in all of New Jersey. Thanks to incubation programs through the Endangered and Nongame Species Project, in 2009 New Jersey sported 69 nests and 85 territorial pairs. Many more Bald Eagles who do not choose to nest in the Garden State year-round come to the area to winter. I certainly know that the northern New Jersey suburbs have a few hanging around. We have seen the odd Bald Eagle flying over the highway, always without a camera or a safe place to stop, naturally.

Those of us who live in Northern New Jersey are doubly lucky because a lot of Bald Eagles make their homes, or at least their winter residences, along the lower Hudson River. The ice breakers make it easier for the Eagles to access fresh fish throughout the winter and they are fairly common. We saw a nest at Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site. We were taking a look at the lighthouse and the view of the river when we saw a huge flash of bird. “If I didn’t know better, I would have said that looked like a Bald Eagle!” I exclaimed to our guide. “Yup, it was. We have a nest.” She pointed to the nest and then headed back to the visit center, like people see Bald Eagles in the wild every day! Well, I guess she does probably see them every day. We decided to get the long lens out, sit on a bench and see if it circled around again. We didn’t get to see the adult again, but we did see a juvenile less than gracefully swooping around at the edge of the cliff.

You many not think so, but you will definitely know a Bald Eagle nest when you see it. At this point I have seen a few in real life, and I am still always surprised by just how big they actually are. They are the largest nests you will ever see in North America. The largest has been recorded at about 13 feet deep and 8.2 feet wide. They often add to the nest each year, reinforcing it, which is probably how they come to grow so large. This DIY project is part of the pair’s annual breeding ritual and helps them to both prepare for the coming eggs. There is a mating pair of Bald Eagles who reside on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The nest has been in place for so long that they have had multiple generations of the same Bald Eagle family nest there.

Blue Jays- The Bully of the Backyard

I have seen numerous references to Blue Jays as “the sentinels of the forest,” sounding the alarm of danger for their fellow birds and other woodland creatures. I feel that this title attributes a benevolent quality to the Blue Jay’s actions which is totally unwarranted. True, Blue Jays often send out loud cries which serve as a warning to the rest of the animals in the immediate vicinity. However, rather than the primary purpose of the call, this is often a coincidental side effect, if not a deliberate misrepresentation, designed to scare the other birds away from what the Blue Jays covet for themselves.

Based on my observations, rather than the overseer of safety, I think it would be more accurate to classify the Blue Jays as the bombastic and inflated characters that they are. John James Audubon, for whom many bird watching societies are named, referred to Blue Jays as “mischievous.” Like the bully in a playground, the Blue Jays very loudly and pompously push their way into the midst of the feeder crowd, using their superior size and prancing movements to intimidate and push their fellow birds from the seed or perch they plan to possess.

Don’t get me wrong, Blue Jays are a beautiful bird. Familiar to most people, at about twelve inches long, the Blue Jay ‘s back, head and tail are a bright, light blue, decorated with horizontal stripes along the bottom of its wings and length of its tail. A fluffier white-gray belly and neck provides some contrast. Its face is bordered in a black semi-circle, almost like a beard. Its head is topped with a distinct crest, adding an almost regal formality to the Blue Jay’s overall appearance.

One of the reasons Blue Jays are so familiar to us is directly due to human interaction. Blue Jays have adapted well to human populations, both urban and suburban and are just as comfortable in a yard or park as they are in the forest. People are a consistent and convenient source of food all year and as a result very few Blue Jays migrate in the winter. They have a varied diet of bugs, fruit, seeds, nuts (they are very partial to peanuts specifically) and carrion which allows them additional flexibility in their various habitats. They also cache food, a behavior uncommon in birds. In the spring, Blue Jays supplement their diets by attacking the nests of other birds and eating their eggs or newly hatched nestlings. Yes, Blue Jays eat babies. While they are not the only bird species to behave in this manner, this activity is leading to a decline in many forest’s song bird populations as nest robber population, including the Blue Jay increase due to their positive relations to humans.

Blue Jays are interesting it watch. The have a curious and inquisitive nature that seems to imply a deeper intelligence. Matched with their seeming fearlessness, these qualities find them often invading humans’ personal space bubbles similar to seagulls approaching beach goers. But while their “mischievous” actions may be funny, remember that they can also be aggressive and even mean to other species.

Blue Jays can definitely hold their own, and have been known to mob (or attack as a group) owls and other large predator birds. Their imitation of a hawk can scatter birds in an instant and the juveniles seem to pick up this loud-mouth quality very early on. The cries of a juvenile Blue Jay are some of the loudest and most unsettling sounds of nature. They seem to feel that their parents need a constant verbal reminder to feed them immediately! This behavior lasts for the first twenty days of their life, after which point they are responsible for feeding themselves.

So there you have it, a loud-mouth bully with aggressive behavior. Next time you admire the beautiful blue of a Blue Jay, just remember that appearance is only one aspect of its complex character.

To experience the sounds of the Blue Jay for yourself, visit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/sounds